Dreams: The Making of Cities

"A city should be a place of exuberance and exaltation of the human spirit, a place for celebration and public 'happenings', for rich and easy encounter, for relaxation and enjoyment." E.R.Wickham

Los Angeles is the city of dreams–it has created fantasies, romances, and visions of tomorrow that have seeped into every corner of the world. Disneyland, films, and television permeate every part of the city and its dream industry. The freedom over space and time promised by the car was a perfect fit for the Los Angeles dream. Yet L.A.'s traffic, sprawl, and smog reveal a waking nightmare, a city of individuals where streets and other public places are sacrificed to traffic–a city that developed with no vision other than that of the highway engineer.

While some other cities are following in the path of L.A., there is an alternative movement developing around the world based on a different dream: to slow down the traffic, to provide alternative modes of transportation, to build urban villages where people don't need a car.

These alternative visions for cities are not difficult to find. Many European cities like Zurich, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Freiburg have shown it is possible to reduce traffic. All have stories to tell of how their dreams of less car dominance were achieved over those of the traffic engineers.

Boulder, Colorado, has 20 years of pursuing a different development model than that of L.A. The city has a vibrant, walkable, mixed-use center instead of a big-box shopping center. Students and seniors get free service on the city's highly successful local bus service, and Boulder's growth management strategy has stopped sprawl cold. Boulder has been so successful at buying up land on its fringe and turning it into open space that the city recently bought about half the adjoining county to stop some major freeway-based sprawl.

Up the west coast from L.A. is Portland, Oregon, where the Mt. Hood Freeway was stopped and the MAX light rail system built instead. The qualities of Portland's downtown public spaces, its growth boundary, its traffic calmed neighborhoods, and its growing use of light rail testify to a different vision.

Like L.A., Bangkok, Thailand, is also known as the city of angels, and during its recent history it has been pursuing the car about as keenly. Traffic levels regularly exceed road capacity so that total gridlock seems a whisker away.

However, there are different models in Asia as well. Singapore decided it would not follow the American dream and has for 20 years created a wealthy city-state based around its electric rail system and well-designed centers. The city has one sixth of the car use of L.A. and eight times as much use of public transport. But more importantly Singapore has 40 percent less car use than Bangkok, 20 percent more transit use and is nearly 4 times as wealthy.

Singapore went against World Bank advice when it built its electric rail system. The American transportation establishment that has dominated Bank policy for 50 years still regards electric rail as an inferior choice to upgrading bus services. Singapore has proven them to be wrong and our data show why.

Only cities with good electric rail systems show average speeds of transit faster than traffic, thus offering a competitive advantage to transit. In Singapore the traffic speed averages 33 kilometers per hour and the MRT train averages 40 kph. In Bangkok, the traffic crawls along at 13 kph but the bus system averages a mere 9 kph.

That these gridlocked cities are all a victim of their dreams rather than some inevitable process of the market is seen when the economics of these alternative approaches is examined. Bangkok spends 17.3 percent of its city wealth on its car-dominated transport system while Singapore spends a mere 7.2 percent on its transit-dominated transport system.

L.A. with its freeways spends 12 percent of its wealth on transport, while most European cities, with extensive transit systems, spend only 8 percent. Overall, among the 37 cities we studied, those cities with good transit systems have much lower total transport costs than those cities that have freeways and poor bus-based transit. This is the opposite of the current investment ideology, which suggests that freeways are good for a city's economy and transit is a drain on city wealth.

In L.A., despite the last freeway costing $200 million per kilometer to build, and despite only 18 percent of the population actually believing that freeways help ease congestion, the city is planning another freeway through 1,000 homes in Pasadena. Lois Arkin who founded L.A.'s Eco-Village, has a different vision for her city; with the residents of Pasadena and other transit advocates she is hopeful that a different dream for her city can win the day.

There are cities all around the world where the dreams of common people have been successful in stopping the dreams of the traffic engineers. The vibrancy of Greenwich Village in New York would have been lost had it not been for the citizens, led by Jane Jacobs, who stood up against the freeway plan of Robert Moses. Then when Ms. Jacobs moved to Toronto, she helped stop the Spadina Expressway, which would have cut a swath through the inner city; instead the city went for transit and became one of the least auto-dependent cities in North America. Similar stories can be told in Boulder, Portland, Vancouver, and in most European cities, all of which had large motorway plans dreamed up for them by international traffic consultants.

Freedom is not easily bought or built; freedom in cities today starts in the dreams of ordinary people for a community that is not dominated by the needs and impacts of the car. Common to all these stories of citizen-based action to stop freeways has been key individuals who have helped to create a different dream for their cities–a dream of how light rail, traffic calming, and urban villages can provide a softer, more human kind of city.

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